Denser Housing Is Gaining Traction on America’s East Coast

For the past few years, cities and states on the West Coast have led the charge to build more dense housing and arrest fast-rising rents. Oregon passed the first-ever statewide law legalizing duplex homes in most cities, while California has debated one bill after another to increase the allowable housing near transit.

The East Coast has been slower to pick up on density as a solution to soaring costs for renters and home-buyers. But that may change in the new year. Late in December, Virginia became the first eastern state to see a proposal to prohibit bans on duplex housing across the state, among other housing fixes. Not to be outdone, Maryland will weigh a upzoning bill in 2020, plus a sweeping experiment to build European-style social housing across the state.

Next week, Maryland House Delegate Vaughn Stewart will introduce a suite of housing bills to expand rights for renters and options for buyers. This legislative “Homes for All” package would attack the affordability crisis on three fronts: by lifting zoning restrictions on new housing, generating a fund for public housing, and establishing new rights for tenants.

“What we’re really trying to convey is that the housing affordability crisis is so deep and so acute, that you can’t begin to solve it with just one solution,” Stewart says. “It’s time for the Maryland General Assembly’s response on housing to meet the scale of the problem.”

Stewart, who represents Montgomery County, a largely affluent suburban area outside Washington, D.C., was elected to office in 2019 in part on a pledge to address the high cost of housing and lack of so-called middle housing options. The subject is divisive locally: While Montgomery County council members voted unanimously to build 10,000 more housing units by 2030, the county’s executive, Marc Elrhich, opposed the resolution.

With the Homes for All bills, Stewart says he is focusing on justice and equity as an explicit goal of zoning reform.

“For too long, local governments have weaponized zoning codes to block people of color and the working class from high-opportunity neighborhoods,” Stewart says. “We’ve got to act boldly if we want to reverse decades of exclusionary policy.”

Maryland’s upzoning bill takes a different tack from the law recently introduced by Virginia House Delegate Ibraheem Samirah, which would legalize duplexes across the commonwealth. Instead of a blanket upzoning, Stewart has opted for a more tailored approach. His bill would increase the legally permissible density of housing only in areas with relatively high incomes, concentration of jobs, or access to public transit. It would also raise taxes to fund thousands of units of publicly owned and permanently affordable housing.

While both the Virginia and Maryland bills are the work of suburban D.C. representatives—officials separated by only about 30 miles—the two bills show how widely housing strategies may vary. Now lawmakers will weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each.

The D.C. area, including Montgomery County, faces an acute shortage of affordable and market-rate homes. A report from the Urban Institute finds that the region needs to build 374,000 housing units by 2030 in order to meet its pent-up housing need. Yet other parts of Maryland struggle with different housing crises, from sky-high vacancy rates and negative home values in Baltimore to exclusionary restrictions that freeze out new buyers on the Eastern Shore. Maryland is a microcosm for America.

“We’ve got Appalachia, the South, the water, a major Northeast city, affluence, poverty, immigrants,” Stewart says. “It’s tough to have a one-size-fits-all bill, especially with something as tough as housing policy.”

Bringing together a broad, durable pro-housing coalition is critical to pass any housing reforms, he adds. He designed his bill to appeal to tenants’ rights activist, market-oriented supply-siders, and socialist public housing champions (or PHIMBYs) alike.

The Modest Home Choices Act of 2020 would legalize a wide array of multifamily homes, including duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes, cottage clusters, and townhouses. The bill would preempt local restrictive zoning codes in census tracts that meet certain criteria for jobs, transit access, and median household income. Stewart’s bill uses the Opportunity Atlas, a demographic mapping project by economists at Harvard University and Brown University with the U.S. Census Bureau, as a guide for setting parameters for neighborhood opportunity.

For census tracts in Maryland that meet the opportunity standards, local governments must permit at least one of each kind of middle-housing option in single family home–zoned areas, and they must legalize duplexes by right. The bill doesn’t prohibit the construction of single-family homes; instead, it repeals local bans on duplexes and other multifamily home options.

Further, the bill, whose precise legal language is still being drafted, would require local governments to ensure that new development does not lead to any net loss of naturally occurring affordable housing. The bill leaves it to local governments to regulate other land-use codes, including property sizes and setbacks. In wouldn’t affect rural areas or low-income places with less opportunity.

A second bill, the Social Housing Act of 2020, would broadly fund and encourage the construction of new social housing statewide. This ambitious proposal could have enormous ramifications for the Old Line State.The fundamentals of his new bill are simple: publicly owned, permanently affordable, accessible homes, built with unionized labor, near public transit, and made available to a variety of income levels.

This kind of social housing, based on the Vienna model, is rare in the U.S.—there are maybe 600,000 to 750,000 units, fewer even than the federally capped figure for public housing. As far as proposals for social housing go, possibly only the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez comes close.

“It sounds almost utopian to an American’s ear,” Stewart says. “But it’s very mundane in Europe.”

The Social Housing Act ams to create thousands of these units in Maryland. In order to fund these homes, the bill would tweak the state’s real-estate transfer taxes to include a new 0.75 percent tax for properties that sell for $1 million or more. The bill would also authorize a new $75 fee for real-estate notices, including trusts, covenants, and other documents (but not sales). It’s unclear yet how many public-housing units this new purse would actually subsidize, and some details about the funding and financing of the units may change as the bill’s likely impact is audited.

Building affordable housing is a challenge in Maryland. Historically, the state has spent a “cartoonishly low amount out of its Housing Trust Fund,” according to Stewart. From 1992 through fiscal year 2018, Maryland’s fund has received $49 million; in D.C., a similar housing production trust fund received nearly $170 million in fiscal year 2018 alone, even though the District’s population is 10 times smaller than that of Maryland.

The final plank of the Homes for All package, the Tenant Protection Act of 2020, is a grab-bag of new rights for tenants. Some of the provisions would implement protections available to tenants in California and New York, while others would expand renters’ rights in Montgomery County to cover the entire state.

For example, the law would allow Maryland tenants to leave a lease early if the landlord can’t or won’t fix defects, pests, or mold. It expands the rights of victims of sexual assault or domestic violence to terminate a lease early to include victims of stalking and other vulnerable renters—and it makes it illegal for landlords to evict tenants for calling the police after suffering these crimes. Maryland landlords currently have 45 days to return a security deposit; if this law passes, they’ll have 30 days instead. Plus, landlords will have to submit itemized receipts for any deductions.

“[The bill] takes some of our existing laws and brings them to the next level, giving the tenant the ability to be their own best advocate,” says Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland.

Housing reforms face long odds, thanks in part to the diverse groups that tend to step up to face them down. The opposition brings together NIMBY homeowners who don’t want to share the wealth, socialist-types who don’t support market-rate developers, and racists who want to preserve exclusive white communities.

While zoning reformers can claim a few victories now, the YIMBY movement is still fractious, a challenge for housing affordability on both coasts. Stewart says that he hopes to overcome the “balkanization on the left on housing” by aiming wide.

“I’ve gotten frustrated by the in-fighting between those who think we should most principally focus on zoning laws and those who want to focus on renters’ rights,” Stewart says. “We can do all those things together.”

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CityLab Daily: America After Climate Change, Mapped

What We’re Following

At last: You don’t have to use too much imagination to predict the fundamental weather impacts of climate change in the U.S. by the end of the 21st century. Estimates show the temperature will increase an average of 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to more extreme weather events, from heatwaves to wildfires to floods.

But lots of other potential impacts are less inevitable, according to Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s

(McHarg Center)

While the broad takeaways are unsurprisingly dire, there is reason for some optimism that ambitious policy proposals could make a difference. “We get the future we build for ourselves,” Fleming tells CityLab’s Sarah Holder. Read her story: America After Climate Change, Mapped

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

How Universal Pre-K Drives Up Families’ Infant-Care Costs

An unintended consequence of free school programs for three- and four-year-olds is a reduction in the supply of affordable child care for kids younger than two.

Kendra Hurley

Navigator: Lost Landscapes

What can archival materials tell us about our cities?

Sarah Holder

Change Comes to a Suburb That Loved Sprawl

Oakland County, Michigan, has long spurned transit and kept Detroit at arm’s length. But new county executive David Coulter isn’t afraid of density.

Amy Crawford

The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

Jonathan English


What We’re Reading

“Mayors for Mike”: How Bloomberg’s money built a 2020 political network (New York Times)

Inside the post-apocalyptic underground future (The Guardian)

This clever bus stop features rotating pods to shield passengers from the wind (Curbed)

California is spending big on the 2020 census, while Texas decided not to devote any money to the job (New York Times)

This GPS-based haiku generator writes poems about your current location (Fast Company)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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America After Climate Change, Mapped

In 100 years, what will a United States transformed by climate change look like? At this point, you don’t have to use much imagination to predict what’s coming: Temperatures will continue to climb; sea levels will continue to rise. And, by the 2060s, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that global migration patterns will bring 100 million new people into the country, who will settle from coast to coast.

Almost everything else about the climate of tomorrow and the nation’s ability to survive it is less inevitable, however, says Billy Fleming, the director of the University of Pennsylvania’s McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology. “There are certain general things we’re certain about, but the shape and content of the future is not one of them,” he said. “We get the future we build for ourselves.”

With other researchers from the McHarg Center, he designed a series of maps of the U.S. for an online collection dubbed The 2100 Project: An Atlas for A Green New Deal. The website use a variety of projected and current data sources to sketch out the country’s possible fate, displaying its geography in economic, ecological, agricultural, and ideological terms. Climate models vary, as do timelines and confidence intervals for each map. But collectively, Fleming says the images provide visual evidence that it’s not too late for grand interventions to make a fundamental difference. Ambitious proposals like the Green New Deal—which involves a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s energy and building infrastructure—could be the key, he said.

“By the end of 21st century, the temperature will increase an average 9.3 degrees Fahrenheit.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

The broad takeaways are dire, as usual. Heat-related deaths in the southern U.S. could grow—but so could cold-related deaths in northern areas. Workers exposed to outdoor temperatures in Texas and the Gulf Coast would be most at risk for heat-related deaths, but everyone’s risk could be heightened.

The southern U.S. can expect to see spikes in climate-related mortality. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

According to GDP projections through 2099, more than three quarters of U.S. counties will be suffering economically because of the damage climate change wreaks; about a quarter will benefit. “The losses are largest in the regions that are already poorer on average (Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic), increasing inequality as value transfers to the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes Region, and New England,” the report finds. Rural, non-coastal regions like Arkansas, where Fleming grew up, are often left out of serious conversations about climate change despite their dependence on crops and livestock that can be damaged by drought, heat, and heavy rains, along with the accompanying risk of soil erosion.

“Economic damage is considered as the combined value of market and non-market damage across the agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor sectors.” (Courtesy McHarg Center)

No corner of the U.S. will be spared by the effects of climate change: Sea-level rise could displace up to 13.1 million people by the end of the 21st century. But adaptations will have to look different everywhere, Fleming said. High-poverty Mississippi will contend with coastal flooding, variations in agriculture viability, and huge energy expenditure demands as a result of extreme heat. As a result, many residents could become climate migrants. In Manhattan, the most urgent concern may be flooding; up by the Great Lakes and the Canadian border, the threats center around industry and farming. Northern cities like Duluth and Buffalo may indeed transform into some form of “climate refuge,” thanks to abundant fresh water and cooler temperatures. But they could also be vulnerable to other, less desirable impacts from mass migration.

“We both can and have to expand the definition of frontline community,” said Fleming.

(Courtesy McHarg Center)

An estimated 100 million people will migrate into and around the country seeking refuge from the various climate impacts. And as they do, more energy resources, water, and density will be needed. “Most demographers expect an increasing share of these people to live in major American cities like New York, Chicago, and Phoenix,” the project reads. To accommodate them in high-density places like New York City, we’ll need 12 new NYC-sized cities; the same population will require 68 lower-density places like Phoenix.

The planet-saving power of density. (Courtesy McHarg Center)

Such findings resonate with proposals like Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ Green New Deal for Public Housing, which calls for billions of investment in upgrading existing public housing stock and a nationwide emphasis on building more dense, transit-friendly communities.

The sweeping scale of such proposals may seem daunting, especially given the current political climate, but the project makes a point of acknowledging America’s legacy of infrastructural transformation. There’s a “History of Big Ideas” map that traces earlier planning initiatives and mass mobilization efforts that are “[v]ariously inspiring and cautionary,” like the Garden City and Greenbelt projects and Tennessee Valley Authority of the original New Deal. We’ve done it before, it implies. We can do it again.

“These are things that the country can take on together if and when it decides to make the climate crisis the sort of generational investment it deserves to be,” said Fleming.

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Mapping America’s Stark Wage Inequality

One of the most important economic stories of the past couple of decades is the rise of economic inequality in the United States and around the world. As readers of CityLab know, inequality is stark in the “superstar” cities that power advanced economies.

In a new study, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York document this phenomenon in America’s leading cities and knowledge hubs. Jaison Abel (with whom I have previously collaborated) and Richard Deitz track the rise in wage inequality for the country as a whole and across some 200 metropolitan areas over the period 1980 to 2015. Thomas Piketty and Paul Krugman have suggested that 1980 was a tipping point, when advanced economies (and the U.S. in particular) shifted from convergence to greater divergence and inequality across classes and regions.

Wage inequality is not the same as income inequality: It refers to the growing gulf in wages and salaries paid to workers, whereas income inequality is a broader measure of the divide between rich and poor.

The map below, from the New York Fed’s study, charts wage inequality across U.S. metros based on the commonly used 90/10 measure of inequality. This is basically the ratio of the wages of workers in the top 10 percent of the wage distribution (or the 90th percentile) divided by the wages of workers in the bottom 10 percent (or the 10th percentile). In other words, it shows how many times more the top 10 percent of workers earn compared to the bottom 10 percent.

The geography of wage inequality (2015 90/10 ratios by metropolitan area)

(J.R. Abel and R. Deitz, “Why Are Some Places So Much More Unequal Than Others?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019.)

Across all metros, the top 10 percent makes about five times as much as the bottom 10 percent. But the 90/10 ratio varies depending on the area. On the map, red dots indicate a ratio of more than 7. These are the most unequal places in the country. Pink dots mean a ratio of 6 to 7, and gray dots, 5 to 6. Blue dots have a ratio of less than 5—these are the least unequal places in America.

Red dots are concentrated in and around New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as in Houston and oil-producing parts of Texas. Pink dots spread to more places along the East Coast’s Acela Corridor and in the Bay Area, as well as parts of Southern California, Southern Florida, and college towns such as Ann Arbor, Michigan. Conversely, gray and blue dots are sprinkled throughout the interior of the country.

The table below compares wage inequality in 2015 and in 1980. It shows the 15 metros with the highest and lowest levels of wage inequality in both years.

The most and least unequal U.S. metropolitan areas, 2015 and 1980

(J.R. Abel and R. Deitz, “Why Are Some Places So Much More Unequal Than Others?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019.)

What’s striking about this table: Not a single superstar city or major tech hub was one of the most unequal metros in 1980. Most of the places on that list are smaller; only two (New Orleans and Orlando) have more than 1 million people. New York City, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C. were among the most unequal cities in 2015, but all failed to make the 1980 list.

That said, the Fed economists find wage inequality to be somewhat persistent over time. The correlation between the 90/10 ratio in 1980 and 2015 is reasonably strong (0.5). Indeed, six of the bottom 15 metros and three of the top 15 appear on both lists. As the authors write: “This relatively strong positive relationship suggests that places with the highest levels of inequality in 1980 generally tended to also have the highest levels of inequality in 2015.”

The next chart compares how metros lined up on wage inequality in 2015 (along the Y axis) compared to 1980 (across the X axis). The vast majority fall above the fitted line, which indicates that wage inequality increased in almost every metro in the United States. Quite a few metros come well above the fitted line. These places have seen significant increases in wage inequality over the years.

Rising wage inequality among U.S. metropolitan areas, 1980 to 2015

(J.R. Abel and R. Deitz, “Why Are Some Places So Much More Unequal Than Others?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019.)

This general rise in wage inequality has been driven by metros like New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. As the study points out, back in 1980, not one of those metros, and not one of the 10 largest metro areas in the country, ranked among the most unequal. By 2015, five of America’s 10 largest metros ranked among the most unequal, and all 10 could be found among the nation’s 50 most unequal places.

City size and wage inequality, 1980 and 2015

(J.R. Abel and R. Deitz, “Why Are Some Places So Much More Unequal Than Others?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019.)

The relationship between wage inequality and city size can be seen in the chart above. Here, red dots show metro inequality levels in 2015, and blue dots show metro inequality in 1980. Not only are the red dots higher on the graph than the blue dots—indicating the increase in wage inequality—but the fitted line for the red dots slopes upward, indicating the positive association of wage inequality to city size in 2015. The line for the blue dots, by contrast, is nearly flat, indicating a minimal relationship between inequality and city size back in 1980.

As Abel and Deitz note: “In 1980, there was virtually no relationship between city size and the level of wage inequality; however, by 2015, the correlation increased to 0.4, indicating that larger places now tend to be more unequal.”

The next chart breaks out what has been happening to wage inequality in different types of metros around the country. It provides a baseline for the growth in wages for various types of workers in the U.S. as a whole (the black line on the graph). Wage growth for the highest-paid workers has been roughly triple that for the lowest-paid workers. The wages of the highest-paid workers grew by more than 75 percent, while those of the lowest paid grew by less than 25 percent.

Real wage growth for selected U.S. metropolitan areas by percentile, 1980 to 2015

(J.R. Abel and R. Deitz, “Why Are Some Places So Much More Unequal Than Others?” Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2019.)

In New York and San Francisco (the orange and red lines on the graph), wages have grown across the board for all workers, but have grown the most for the best-paid workers. The lowest-wage workers have seen gains of, say, 25 percent, while the highest-paid workers have seen gains four or five times that or higher.

But wage growth has been considerably flatter in Detroit and Youngstown (blue lines). While the highest-paid workers have seen some gains, these are similar to those of much lower-paid workers in superstar cities. The lowest-paid workers in these places have even seen their wages decline.

Again, it’s important to remember that the study is measuring wage inequality, not overall income inequality, which takes into account non-worker income and income from capital, rents, and transfers. I have been interested in wage inequality and its geography since the early 2000s, when I found that it was highest in leading creative-class cities, and it’s something I picked up on again in my book The New Urban Crisis. According to my own research and other studies, superstar cities do not dominate quite so much on the broader measure of income inequality. Atlanta, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Miami top the list of large metros on this measure, which is more closely associated with racially concentrated poverty.

The connection between wage inequality and superstar cities jibes with past findings. A 2011 study by my University of Toronto colleague Nate Baum-Snow, and Ronni Pavan found that metro size accounted for 25 to 35 percent of the increase in economic inequality across U.S. metros from 1979 to 2007. My own analysis of 90/10 wage inequality, published in CityLab in 2015, identified San Jose, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York, Houston, Boston, and Los Angeles as the nation’s most unequal metros, and found wage inequality to be closely associated with the size and density of metros as well as their concentrations of high-tech industry, the creative class, and college grads. As I wrote back then: “Wage inequality is not just a bug of our new, clustered urban geography—it is a fundamental feature of it.”

Still, it’s a mistake to blame cities for rising wage inequality. A large part of the story is deep structural changes in the national and global economies, as advanced economies have shifted from an older industrial basis to a newer one: knowledge. Deindustrialization and globalization have eliminated huge numbers of blue-collar manufacturing jobs, splitting the labor market between a small number of well-paid knowledge jobs and a much larger number of lower-paid service jobs.

Also, inequality within cities is further reinforced by the huge spike in national inequality. As Robert Manduca has shown, the top 1 percent and top 10 percent of the richest Americans have taken home the lion’s share of economic gains over the past couple of decades, and these groups are disproportionately concentrated in superstar cities.

This pattern is not unique to the United States. Superstar cities all over the advanced world, from London and Paris to cities in the social-democratic nations of Northern Europe, like Stockholm, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, have seen a similar spike in urban inequality. That suggests that it’s driven by broad changes in the structure of advanced economies and in the disproportionate gains that have gone to the top earners and very richest people.

Over the past decade or so, the progressive mayors of superstar cities have tried many local strategies to mitigate the problem, including higher minimum wages, broader social safety nets, and affordable-housing construction. None of it has made a dent. The surge in urban inequality is the product of forces that are bigger than cities, yet primarily manifest there. Taming these forces will require a broader, more robust combination of national and local actors.

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The Changing Demographics of America’s Suburbs

A great deal of attention has been paid to the revitalization of cities and urban areas, and the decline of rural communities. In fact, the very idea of a growing divide between urban and rural America has become a defining narrative of our time. But what about the suburbs? A majority of Americans live in them, after all.

The suburbs are in the midst of dramatic transformation, too, as they are buffeted by the very same forces—globalization, technology, deindustrialization, and the rise of the clustered knowledge economy—that are transforming urban and rural areas.

Not so long ago, tens of millions of middle- and working-class families headed to the suburbs to fulfill the American dream. But the past couple of decades have brought substantial changes to the suburbs. Some term it the “end of the suburbs” as the affluent and the educated head back to cities. Others call it a great inversion as the older pattern of rich suburbs surrounding poor cities is reversed with poor suburbs now surrounding rich cities. One writer for The New York Times described a decline so deep his observations were titled Slumburbia.

Not so fast. Just as urban America is defined by an increasingly winner-take-all geography, with a defined group of winners and losers, so too is suburbia.

There is no doubt that many suburbs are increasingly economically challenged and suburban poverty is rising. Now, more poor people live in suburbs than in urban centers, though this is partly a function of the fact that more people in general live in suburbs. And concentrated poverty has grown faster in suburbs than in cities, as well.

But, the suburbs remain the most affluent economic aggregates in America. Consider places like Greenwich, Connecticut; Rye, New York; Potomac and Bethesda, Maryland; MacLean, Virginia; and Newport Beach California, as I wrote in CityLab. And all but one of the ten priciest ZIP codes in America are in the suburbs—the elite Silicon Valley suburbs of Atherton, Los Altos, and Palo Alto; Beverly Hills and Santa Monica outside Los Angeles; and the exclusive enclave of Fisher Island, off the coast of Miami Beach.

The aforementioned combination of globalization, the decline of the old manufacturing economy, and the re-urbanization of the knowledge economy, is redefining the role and function of the suburbs.

Many suburbs are seeing their historic functions as bedroom communities or as homes to industrial or office parks being challenged. Bur others with particular characteristics—more urbanized and closer-in, walkable; connected to vibrant urban centers by public transit; home to knowledge institutions like universities, colleges, or major R&D labs; surrounded by unique amenities like coastlines, mountains, or parks; or those that have developed new economic functions and connections to the knowledge economy like the Silicon Valley suburbs I mentioned—continue to thrive.

These changes are so profound that Karyn Lacy of the University of Michigan has called for a new sociology of the suburbs similar to the original urban sociology pioneered by Robert Park and the Chicago School of urban sociologists of the early 20th century. Political scientists see the sweeping economic transformation of the suburbs, and in particular the rise of economically distressed suburbs, as defining the new fault-line of American politics.

In addition to these fundamental economic transformations, there are two key demographic trends that are acting to reshape suburbia today.

The first is the suburbanization of immigration. This is a reversal of the earlier 20th century pattern where immigrants packed themselves into inner-city neighborhoods, like my own grandparents who resided in the Italian district of Newark, New Jersey.

Today, immigration is increasingly suburban, a key characteristic of what Brookings demographer William Frey dubs 21st century immigration. As of 2010, more than half of all immigrants (51 percent) resided in the suburbs. Today’s suburban immigrants are also more highly educated than those of the past. One reason they choose suburbs is for access to their schools.

The second trend is the racial and ethnic transformation of suburbia. Part of this is due to immigration, but another part is the suburbanization of African Americans. Between 1970 and 2000, the share of African Americans living in suburban Atlanta increased from 27 percent to 78 percent; while in greater Washington D.C it rose from 25 percent in 1970 to 82 percent. Those trends have continued to accelerate, according to the Lacy’s research. There are two parts to this African-American suburbanization. On the one hand, it is the result of low-income African Americans being pushed out of gentrifying parts of cities. And on the other, it involves the black middle class choosing to move to more upscale suburbs. Taken together, they add up to considerable shift.

But it is not just African Americans who are headed to the suburbs: other minority groups are, too. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution has documented the dramatic growth of “melting pot suburbs,” where minorities constitute 35 percent or more of the population. As result, today’s suburbs no longer look much like the lily-white places portrayed on 1950s and 1960s sitcoms. Whites comprised less than ten percent of growth of the suburban population in America’s 100 largest metros between the years 2000 and 2010.

This all adds up to a thorough transformation of suburbia. No longer are the suburbs homogenous bedroom communities; they are far more demographically diverse. At the same time, their economic functions are being jostled and realigned.

The ongoing transformation of the suburbs, like the transformation of urban America, is multidimensional. Just as some cities are thriving as others struggle, some suburbs remain among the most successful, fastest growing, and most affluent areas in America even as others face growing poverty, mounting economic dislocation, and in some cases, even economic decline.

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CityLab Daily: Counting America’s Votes

What We’re Following

Ballot box: It’s the day after America’s off-year election, and some of the results are in. Here’s a rundown of some of the key outcomes so far:

  • Pete Buttigieg’s hand-picked successor, James Mueller, won the election for mayor of South Bend, signaling a continuation of Buttigieg’s legacy. (Vox)

  • Danica Roem, who campaigned on traffic congestion improvements that haven’t yet come to fruition, won re-election in Virginia’s 13th district. (Daily Beast)

  • Meanwhile, Democrats flipped the Virginia state legislature for the first time in more than two decades. (PBS NewsHour)

  • Washington voters seem poised to restrict the price of “car tab” taxes, leaving cities scrambling for transportation funding. (Seattle Times)

  • Jersey City voted to restrict home-sharing, delivering a loss to Airbnb, which spent $4.2 million campaigning against the regulation. (Bloomberg)

  • Denver will likely get a separate department of transportation for the first time, in a move designed to emphasize the city’s increased investment. (Denverite)

  • New York City approved ranked-choice voting, the biggest U.S. city to adopt the reform. (Vox)

  • Kansas City voters decided to remove Martin Luther King Jr.’s name from a recently rechristened boulevard. (NBC News)

  • Democrats won control of Delaware County, a suburban county outside Philadelphia that Republicans have controlled since before the Civil War. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Stay tuned for more coverage from CityLab.

Andrew Small


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Smashing the Great Pumpkin-Waste Problem

Community pumpkin-smashing events aim to cut down on Halloween’s contribution to America’s food waste problem and reap the benefits of composting.

Linda Poon

What’s Missing From Apple’s $2.5 Billion Housing Plan

Apple is the latest tech giant to commit funds to California’s housing crisis. But experts say the largest barrier to housing is not money; it’s political will.

Laura Bliss and Sarah Holder

In California, a Native American Tribe’s Quest: Give Back Our Island

The Wiyot Tribe was driven from California’s Duluwat Island in 1860. After decades of lobbying by the tribe, the Eureka City Council returned it.

Sarah Holder

One Suffocating City Is a Harbinger of Health Crises Around the World

News images from New Delhi seem cut from an apocalyptic outbreak film.

James Hamblin


What We’re Reading

Uber’s automated driving system could not detect jaywalking pedestrians, NTSB finds (Wired)

Welcome to Citrus County, Florida, home to the culture war for a day (Tampa Bay Times)

Say goodbye to D.C.’s duck boats, which ferried supplies on D-Day and tourists on the National Mall (WAMU)

Why it’s so hard to buy “real food” in farm country (New York Times)


Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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